In a Revived Durham, Black Residents Ask: Is There Still Room for Us?

Posted May 1, 2018 4:03 p.m. EDT

DURHAM, N.C. — “Downtown just ain’t black enough for me,” Paul Scott wrote in The Durham Herald-Sun a couple of months ago. A minister and local newspaper columnist, Scott was echoing a sentiment voiced by many of the city’s longtime African-American residents: The city center does not feel welcoming to them anymore.

“My concern is that when you go downtown on any given evening or on a weekend, you don’t see a whole lot of black faces there,” Scott said later in an interview.

This city has seen an enormous amount of change over the past decade. Its central business district has gone from empty and lacking investment to thriving. And more development is on the way.

As a result of the growth, local officials find themselves grappling with a crisis over affordable housing. But what has been largely overlooked is the cultural displacement that can accompany rapid urban change: the sense that home is not home anymore, at least for a portion of the population.

It is not surprising that some Durham residents are feeling disoriented. In the early part of the last century, the city — once a hub for tobacco and textile industries — was nationally known for its strong businesses owned by African-Americans. It went by the moniker “Capital of the Black Middle Class,” and that group survived even as the city’s downtown experienced a population shift to the suburbs. By the 1970s, though, Durham was the poorest of the three main municipalities in the region, which includes Chapel Hill and Raleigh, and it had developed a reputation for crime.

But public-private investments jump-started some growth a few years ago, just in time for the growing interest in urban living. Artists, professionals and young families began flocking to Durham, attracted to its low housing prices and downtown infrastructure. A big part of the appeal, too, was the city’s racial diversity; blacks and whites each make up about 40 percent of the population.

Since then, however, housing prices have skyrocketed. Investors are renovating homes in low-income neighborhoods near the center of town and selling them for several times what they initially paid. Tobacco warehouses and textile mills have become upscale condominium and office buildings.

Now, Durham is on the cusp of major new development. One of the biggest is One City Center, an $88 million project by Austin Lawrence Partners, a real estate development firm based in Aspen, Colorado. The building will rise 27 stories above downtown and offer retail space, offices and high-end residences.

And there are many others, including the Durham Innovation District, a $100 million project by Longfellow Real Estate Partners, a developer based in Boston. The project consists of 350,000 square feet of office and laboratory space, with ground-floor retail, in two seven-story buildings; one has already been leased to the Duke Clinical Research Institute. The buildings are almost complete, and eventually the project will also include a tower devoted to lab space, bringing the development to 900,000 square feet.

Northwood Ravin, a developer based in North Carolina, is building two projects just south of downtown: the Van Alen, an $80 million, 12-story building that will hold roughly 400 residential units, and 555 Mangum, an 11-story, 240,000-square-foot office tower with ground-floor retail.

In total, the projects will bring more than 1.2 million square feet of office space, 1,500 residential units and 100,000 square feet of retail space to Durham.

There are already far more people on Main Street here than there have been in several decades, and that number will soon increase immensely. In particular, the addition of so many upscale residential units means an entirely new population downtown — largely wealthy and white — plus new restaurants and services catering to that demographic.

But the growth is making some longtime residents uncomfortable.

“I’ve noticed a lot of changes, but none of them have truly been for black people, in my opinion,” said Vanessa Evans, a community leader in the Braggtown area of Durham whose family has lived in the city for generations. “Downtown doesn’t look anything like me, or like it used to look.”

Community leaders point out that several African-American events, like the popular Bimbé Cultural Arts Festival, have been moved to the city’s outer fringes. Others say that Durham’s diversity is still used as a selling point, but that the concept of what’s considered hip in the city has begun to shift.

“What made Durham cool was the racial mix,” said Dorian Bolden, owner of Beyu Caffe, a downtown restaurant. “What created the spark is being redefined as a different kind of cool that may not have the same racial inclusion that we all fell in love with at the beginning.”

Longtime black residents frequently assert that only a couple of black-owned businesses are left in the city center. But Downtown Durham, an economic development group, recently determined that more than 60 minority-owned businesses were in the area, although many were professional offices not visible from the street.

Nicole J. Thompson, Downtown Durham’s chief executive, also pointed out that blacks appeared to be well represented on downtown sidewalks. “I recently made a point to come downtown, as an African-American myself, and see,” she said. “I had to raise my eyebrows: It’s not all white faces.”

Still, many of Durham’s African-American residents feel they have little control over how it transforms.

City officials say that they are aware of the problem, and that maintaining a sense of inclusion and diversity is important to them.

“We don’t want a downtown where only rich people and white people feel comfortable,” said Jillian Johnson, mayor pro tempore on the City Council. “Left to its own devices, this market will trend to the people who have the most money to spend. In order to make downtown accessible and comfortable, there has to be more of an intentional push to maintain some of that racial and socioeconomic diversity.” But Kathryn L.S. Pettit, a researcher at the Urban Institute, said that the sooner city leaders began to act, the better. Land costs can rise steeply with time, she said, reducing the options if the city waits too long to make decisions.

The city needs to examine the best uses of its land that would benefit a variety of residents, Pettit said. It is also important for the city to be as transparent as possible in all of its land-use decisions, particularly with big parcels, she added, because that can help head off disagreements and the sense of being left out.

Other solutions are available, said Derek Hyra, a professor of public administration and policy at American University and the author of “Race, Class, and Politics in the Cappuccino City.” He pointed to a program proposed by a District Council member in Washington that would provide grants to help longtime businesses remain and stay competitive.

Hyra has also observed projects in which developers agreed to accommodate local businesses because of pressure from activists and nonprofit organizations.

“Grassroots organizations have to get involved, mobilized, and have to put pressure on developers and politicians to divert money to small businesses,” he said. “It won’t just naturally happen.”